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Monday, October 13, 2008

Philly Edition: Gee's Bend

I am back in Denver now, but I spent the weekend in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and I thought I'd lay out a little theatre blogging specifically for my Philly-area readers. I know there are at least a few of you who have let me know you check out my blog, and there may be even more of you out there, so here goes.
Saturday night I had the distinct pleasure of enjoying a terrific production of Gee's Bend at the Arden Theatre.
Gee's Bend was part of the Denver Center Theatre Company's previous season and regrettably I missed that production. Fortunate then that I should be in Philadelphia not only to see Gee's Bend produced but also to have been at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (yes, the one with the steps that Rocky scaled, Denverites) to see the accompanying exhibit of the quilts that are the basis of the play.
The story covers 61 years in the life of a young African-American woman in Gee's Bend, Alabama who has learned the art of quilting from her mother. We follow her through motherhood, marriage, segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, widowhood, and ultimately the fame received for her quilts.
Having taken a walking tour of historic Philadelphia that morning and seen the places where this nation and its ideals were founded added an interesting context to the production for me.
As a kid who grew up on a reservation in Southwest Colorado, the notions of "freedom" and "equality" presented in our country's founding story have always held a certain irony for me. I suspect that the African-American community and others regard the words with a similar antiphrasis.
On this day that we celebrate the "discovery" of the land we now call America, I think it best that we not forget that, since that discovery, we have loaded our historical closets with an awful lot of skeletons.
I am not suggesting that we revile Columbus, by any means. he was a man of great vision. He took a big chance on sailing where no one of his race had gone before. These are admirable traits. The full ramifications of his voyage were far beyond anything he could have predicted, I'm sure.
Yet before we wear out our voices lauding Columbus, let us take a moment to reflect upon some those of those ramifications: the subjugation of people, the denial of human rights.
As I watched the story of the quilts of Gee's Bend, I became acutely aware of the fact that "liberty" has not existed for the full 232 years for everyone in this country. Some acquired it much later in the story. There are those who might argue that some have yet to acquire it fully.
I remember thinking at that moment of how important it is for theatre and other storytelling media to ensure that these stories continue to be told.
For that reason, I will say that the Arden Theatre Company's Gee's Bend goes beyond merely being entertaining and beyond even thought-provoking directly into the realm of inspiring.
Both of the candidates are now touting their platforms of change, and that is good. Change is good.
However, one lesson that can be learned from Gee's Bend is that change, real change, goes far beyond any ballot box. Real change comes from within each of us.
It was Gandhi who said, "You must be the change you want to see in the world."
If you're in the Philadelphia area before December 1st, get over to the Arden Theatre and get inspired by Gee's Bend.
And for everyone: Yes, vote for change, but more importantly, be change.

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